Single-Word Searches Aren’t Dead Yet

Keywords, keywords, keywords. They’re really the heart of any search engine marketing (SEM) campaign. After all, what good is a top-10 ranking on a keyword your target audience doesn’t search?

A few months ago, our software development team unveiled a glorious surprise: a treasure chest of search referral data that’s proven highly actionable. It’s the log files of over 50 Fortune-sized companies, compiled from as far back as five years ago. It contains rankings and click-through information on every keyword in every major search engine in a single data mine, all ready to be analyzed. And we’ve been analyzing the heck out of it!

Single-Word Searches Aren’t Dead Yet

For starters, though data from reputable sources tell us multiword keyword phrases are growing in popularity, site logs tell a different story.

Mining the data, we made some interesting and unexpected discoveries. Single-word natural search referrals are as strong as ever. Though on the decline, they’re a mere 10 percent behind two-word searches this year:

Number of Words Used in Natural
Keyword Searches
Year One
Five or
More Words
2002 51 37 10 1 1
2003 43 48 7 1 1
2004 39 49 9 2 1

I suspect many Internet users search single-word branded keywords when they apply to Fortune-level companies and their products. Yet several companies results show they enjoy top rankings and significant conversions from unbranded single-word keywords as well.

Anecdotally, though the conversion rate on unbranded single-word keywords is often lower than for multiword phrases or branded terms, volume often makes up for it. Remember, there’s no incremental cost to having a ranking in natural search results.

One company included in the data drives over 110,000 natural click-throughs per month on a number-one ranking for a competitive, unbranded single keyword in Google. The conversion rate for that keyword is significantly lower than the rate for the branded terms and multiword phrases. Due to the remarkable volume of total search visitors this keyword refers, the large number of conversions on that term more than justify targeting it.

Reports of the single-keyword phrase’s death are greatly exaggerated. The single-word search, though declining, hasn’t yet breathed its last. And it doesn’t appear to be declining as quickly as recent industry buzz would have us believe.

Prediction: Referrals from single-word keyword searches aren’t disappearing any time soon.

Implication: Depending on the size of your company, brand, and site, your SEO (define) campaign should likely target some single-word keywords. Clearly, they matter and often drive relevant traffic.

Two-Word Search Referrals May Be Plateauing

Two-word natural search referrals to Web sites appear to be topping out. The 2004 increase was only 1 percent. Why? Because three- and four-word search referrals combined are increasing and likely replacing two-word referrals.

When we put two- and three-word search referrals in one bar on a chart, the trend line becomes a little steeper. Two- and three-word referrals are growing at about the same rate as single-word referrals are declining:

ClickZ Graphic

The prevailing wisdom is two- and three-word phrases combined constitute 50 percent of searches. Though our data are consistent with that, the statistic ignores the more powerful combination of one- and two-word keyword phrase referrals.

In fact, Fortune-sized companies’ search referrals of one- and two-word phrases together comprise 88 percent of all natural search referrals. That’s powerful food for thought.

Prediction: In natural SEM terms, 2005 will be the growth year for the three-word keyword phrase. 2007 will be the big year for the four-word phrase.

Implication: Two-, three-, and four-word phrases are the future. Make sure your SEO campaign includes them in good measure. Add five- and six-word phrases, when there’s sufficient volume to justify them, but never at the expense of two-, three-, and four-word phrases.


Achieving a natural search result ranking on a single-word keyword is phenomenally difficult, especially if you’re not a big company with a well-known brand. But our data show for big companies with big brands that target non-branded single-word phrases in natural SEO campaigns, in many cases the resulting number of search referrals and conversions justifies the effort.

Conversely, if you’re a smaller firm or a lesser-known brand, understand expectations of achieving top ranking on a single-word keyword may be unrealistic; better to pursue other targets. (If you’re a small neighborhood pharmacy, you’ll just never displace “” on a search for “drugstore.”)

Even big brands are sometimes be thwarted in their attempts if another company owns a domain name that’s the single-word keyword. A search for the word “search” yields the company “” in the top position in Google; Google itself was ranked 23 at press time.

Every time someone searches, she’ll find you… or your competitor. And someone has the top ranking on every single-word search. So if it’s at all feasible and the keyword is very relevant and likely to drive strong conversions, why not your site?

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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